February 10 – We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Ocean

Today’s factismal: Sharks killed 6 people in 2015. People killed 100,000,000 sharks in 2015.

If you read the papers, then there’s what appears to be bad news. In 2015, there were a record number of shark attacks; 98 to be exact.(The official score-keepers count all incidents in a single area and time as a single attack, so if a group of sharks chomps on a bus full of lawyers, that’s still just one attack.) And six of those attacks were deadly. But looking at shark attacks over time, that really isn’t that bad. In 2000, there were 88 attacks. And on average, sharks kill 17 people each year.

For a little more perspective, consider what people do to sharks. Every year, there are millions of people attacks on sharks. And, on average, people kill 100 million sharks each year.

For the sharks, the encounters are rarely deliberate. It is just that from below the average swimming human looks a lot like the average swimming seal. And where we don’t taste all that nice to a shark, seals taste delicious! So the shark will swim up, thinking it is about to chow down on some yummy seal and then spits out the nasty human it accidentally eats!

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef (My camera)

A whitetip shark in the Great Barrier Reef
(My camera)

But for people, the attacks are deliberate. We hunt sharks hunted for food and their skins are used for leather or sandpaper while their livers are turned into popular medicines and their teeth are made into necklaces with whatever is left over being turned into food for aquarium fishes. As a result, sharks are killed at a rate of some 100 million each year. Put another way, if sharks attacked people at the rate that people attacked sharks, it would take just four years for the sharks to kill off every man, woman, and child in the USA (assuming you could find a land shark).

A blacktip shark in the Great Barrier Reef (My camera)

A blacktip shark in the Great Barrier Reef
(My camera)

Our voracious appetite for all things shark is having a definite effect. Nearly 30% of all shark species are now endangered or on the brink of going extinct and the number of sharks in the Mediterranean has dropped by 97% in the time since America was founded. In short, sharks need our help. And they really need the help of citizen scientists who also happen to like to swim! If you are in an area and see a shark, then please report it to Shark Savers. They’ll use your report to help create a census of the sharks and other species in the oceans and that information can help us to discover how many fish can be harvested without driving the species into extinction. To make a report, head over to:

February 8 – Crabby About Cancer

Today’s factismal: There are over 100 different types of cancer known to attack the human body.

If you ever venture out on the internet (I don’t recommend it), then odds are that you will run into a false meme at some point. There will be people who claim that the Earth is flat (it isn’t), or that the Earth is expanding (it isn’t), or that chemtrails are being used for mind control (they aren’t), or that vaccines cause autism (they don’t). The internet isn’t responsible for these memes; conspiracy theories have been around since the days of the Know Nothings. All that the internet has done is make it easier for the modern Luddites to get their message out. And one of the most pernicious messages is the false idea that companies are suppressing a cure for cancer because they can’t make any money at it.

cancer4 cancer3
cancer2 cancercure1
False memes like this abound on the internet

What they don’t realize is that you can’t cure cancer because cancer isn’t one disease; it is (at least) one hundred different diseases. Cancer is what happens when the cells in an organ stop behaving normally and start to grow at the expense of the other, normal cells. Because the human body has 78 organs that interact in lots of different ways, we have lots of opportunities for the cells in those organs to stop behaving normally. Right now, there are more than one hundred different types of cancer that can happen to a person. And each type of cancer needs a different type of medicine in order to be cured. So we can’t cure cancer. Instead, we have to cure cancers. And medical science is working hard to do just that.

How hard? Well, if you had been diagnosed with cancer in 1977, you would have had a 50:50 chance of dying within five years; today, you have a 68% chance of living more than five years. Even better, many forms of cancer that were once considered a death sentence are now treatable. For example, when caught early enough, bowel cancer, prostrate cancer, skin cancer, and breast cancer are no longer a death sentence.  And thanks to the work of those companies that are “supressing a cure for cancer”, today there are 14 million cancer survivors in the USA alone.

Still not good enough? Well why not put the blame for cancer where it belongs – on us. Our habits are responsible for more than half of all cancers. Smoking and obesity caused about 995,000 cases of cancer in the USA in the last year. And 20% of cancers are due to bacteria and viruses, many of which can be prevented with a simple vaccination. And the most common form of radiation-induced cancer is skin cancer, which can be prevented by simply wearing sunscreen.

Most cancers are caused by things we can control

Most cancers are caused by things we can control

So we can prevent cancer simply by eating right and not smoking and companies are working to cure cancer because they don’t like it any more than we do.  Companies are creating tests to detect cancer (because you can’t cure what you don’t know you have). And companies are developing new ways of defeating the 100 different types of cancer. If you’d like to help them, why not put your fingers where your mouth is and play Genes In Space? You’ll play a videogame, charting your course through a minefield – only the minefield is actually a DNA map; when you successfully complete a mission, you help the scientists sequence the DNA of a cancer. Each new mission brings us one step closer to finding a cure for another cancer! To learn more, fly over to:

February 2 – Lord Love A Duck

Today’s factismal: It is World Wetland Day – have you hugged a duck?

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention. Held in Iran in 1971 this convention was all about protecting the wetlands. And in 1971, did they need protection! Though many in today’s world may not remember, the 1960s were known for a series of epic ecological disasters that fundamentally changed the way we look at our world. There was the Cuyahoga River, which was so polluted it caught on fire (thirteen times!). There was the Santa Barbara oil spill which spread 100,000 barrels of crude oil over the California coastline. (For comparison, the more recent Macondo blowout heaved out some 4,900,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.) There were so many pollutants in the Housatonic River that it changed color on a daily basis. In short, things were bad.

An example of "natural pollution", the La Brea Tar Pits are a special type of wetlands (My camera)

An example of “natural pollution”, the La Brea Tar Pits are a special type of wetlands
(My camera)

But instead of getting worse, things got better. They got better in part because a group of scientists and politicians came together in Iran, home to some 3.6 million acres of wetlands. For a month they worked together, putting the finishing touches on a treaty that they’d been working on since 1963. And on February 2, twenty-one countries signed it, putting some 72 million acres of wetlands under treaty protection. (That’s an area roughly the size of Arizona.) And more countries signed every year. In 1987, the USA joined the treaty, bringing the total area under protection to 160 million acres, or an area as large as California and Minnesota combined. Today there are some 169 countries that are signatories to the treaty, protecting more than 505 million acres of wetlands – or enough wetlands to cover all of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Delaware, and Rhode Island! (Or roughly twice the total water area of the USA!) Thanks to that treaty, wetlands have become cleaner and our lives have gotten better.

Though it looks like a big mess to us, to many forms of life, wetlands are the next best thing to paradise (My camera)

Though it looks like a big mess to us, to many forms of life, wetlands are the next best thing to paradise
(My camera)

Why should we care? Because wetlands are more than just wet. They are the places where new species thrive. They are the places where floods get controlled. They are the places that reduce the damage of hurricanes. And, most importantly, they are among the most biologically diverse places on Earth. So celebrate wetlands today. Go hug a duck!

An intrepid explorer, just back from hugging a duck (My camera)

An intrepid explorer, just back from hugging a duck
(My camera)

January 28 – “Not Because They Are Easy”

Today’s factismal: It is National Astronaut Remembrance Day.

This morning, at 11:39 EST, work stopped at NASA. Every NASA center, no matter where it was in the world, went silent. Every NASA worker, no matter what their job, stood quietly. And they all remembered a lesson that NASA has sworn to never forget. They remembered that exploration does not come without cost – and that the cost for a moment of inattention on their part could easily be the life of a colleague and friend.

Today is National Astronaut Remembrance Day. Today was chosen in honor of the Challenger Seven. These bold explorers were headed for space when a series of errors caused in the end by NASA management’s hubris led to the destruction of their spaceship. Sadly, they were not killed when the rocket exploded. Instead, they lived for another two to three minutes as the crew capsule slowly climbed before arcing over and plunging into the ocean. As would be the case for the Columbia crew seventeen years later, they survived the  accident long enough to know how they had been betrayed by those they had trusted to keep them safe. And so, today everyone at NASA stood. They stood to remind themselves that even though we must “do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” we must not do these things in a way that puts our friends, our loved ones, our honored explorers in harm’s way just because it is easier.

And today I ask you to join those who are standing at NASA. Stand for a moment and recall everything that we have gained from this venture into the final frontier.  And then stand for a moment in honor of those who ventured into that frontier and never returned. Stand.

January 26 – Mars Needs Probes

Today’s factismal: All of NASA’s unmanned probes (except space telescopes) are run out of JPL.

Back in the 1990s, NASA had problems, especially at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California. Underfunded and over-mandated, they had to find a way to do more with less. One way that they did so was by developing a new class of missions that would be faster, better, and cheaper than what went before. (JPL wags immediately told management that they could “pick two”.)  And perhaps the most successful mission to come out of that program was the Mars Exploration Rover. NASA built two and with the inevitability of government-speak called them MER-A and MER-B. These rovers would launch from Florida in self-contained packages. Once at Mars, they would fall through the atmosphere until they were slowed by a parachute and rockets; at the appropriate time, they would fall to the ground and bounce around on air bags, just like those used in cars. Once the package had reached the ground, it would unfold, revealing the rover within. Though the landing might sound complicated and more than a little silly, it was necessary, given Mars’ thin atmosphere; fortunately, MER-A and -B had an older sibling (the aptly-named Pathfinder and Sojourner) that had field-tested the process and shown that it could work.

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twwelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Whatney!) (Image courtesy NASA)

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Watney!)
(Image courtesy NASA)

So on July 7, 2003, MER-B was launched from Earth. For more than a year it flew toward the red planet before beginning what NASA wonks called “the most expensive controlled crash-landing in the history of space”. Fortunately, everything worked and the probe rolled out to start its 90 day mission on January 25, 2004. (Think 90 days is short? Sojourner had been given a seven day mission; it ended up lasting for 83 days.) And soon MER-B was following the JPL tradition of exceeding all expectations. It drove further than any other rover before. It collected more data and more images than any other rover. And it discovered more new things about Mars than any other rover. But MER-B was unwieldy to say, and so JPL renamed it “Opportunity”. And, for the past twelve years, Opportunity has kept  on knocking down our ideas of what rovers can do. As of today, it has spent 4,384 Earth days (4,266 Mars days) on Mars; that works out to be 12 Earth years (6 Mars years and 5 Mars months).. All told, Opportunity has exceeded our expectations 48 times over!

One of the high points of Opportunity's voyage, this panorama was taken from the dizzying height of 440 ft! (Image courtesy NASA)

One of the high points of Opportunity’s voyage, this panorama was taken from the dizzying height of 440 ft!
(Image courtesy NASA)

And in that twelve years, the rover has collected a lot of data. It has collected so much data that there are images that the scientists haven’t completely analyzed yet. And that’s where you come in! If you want to explore Mars but don’t want to spend twelve years at it, why not head on over to Planet Four: Terrains? This site asks you to look at images of Mars taken from orbit. You’ll classify the image based on a simple set of choices and help the scientists to build up a catalog of neat things that they might want to send the next rover to explore! To learn more, rove over to:

January 25 – No, It Isn’t

Today’s factismal: Today is not National Opposite Day.

If you lived about 2600 years ago in Greece, you would have had very little to do other than fight off invaders, enslave the survivors, and make up paradoxes. In your spare time, you’d name the Constellations after your favorite dirty stories, er, myths, and invent mathematics and physics (but get both of them very, very wrong). But paradoxes were what you really wanted to do; if you invented a good one, you’d be famous across the land. That’s because the Greeks felt that we could only understand Nature by using logic and since paradoxes point out where logic breaks down, they helped us understand Nature best.

One of the paradoxes of Greece: the temples were also centers of science. Temple of Apollo on Aegina. (My camera)

One of the paradoxes of Greece: the temples were also centers of science. Temple of Apollo on Aegina.
(My camera)

And while Greece was full of philosophers creating new ideas and testing them with new paradoxes, one of the best came from Epimenides, a Greek who was born just off the mainland on the isle of Crete. According to legend, Epimenides was born in 900 BC, slept for 57 years in a cave, and died around 600 BC. And according to what archaeologists have found, he once wrote “Cretans, all liars” as part of an ode to Zeus; modern versions of the saying have changed it slightly to “All Cretans are liars”.

The stoa (porch) where Greek philosophers liked to hang out. (My camera)

The stoa (porch) where Greek philosophers liked to hang out.
(My camera)

Now, given that Epimenides was from Crete, is his statement true or not? If he speaks the truth, then all Cretans must be liars which means that he is a liar which means that his statement cannot be true. But if it is false, then Cretans must be truth tellers which means that his statement is true and all Cretans are liars. (As is the case with all paradoxes, there is a way out; it lies in the word “all”. If only some Cretans are liars, then the statement “All Cretans are liars” can both be a lie {because only some are} and still allow him to be a liar.) This paradox has entertained and befuddled folks ever since the time that Epimenides first told it (or didn’t). In many ways, his paradox was the model for National Opposite Day, which is today.

And if you’d like to be a model scientist, why not head over to Ancient Lives? They need your help in (literally) piecing together the past. You’ll match up pieces of papyrus and help the archaeologists discover more about how the Greeks once lived. Who knows – you may even help them uncover a new paradox! To learn more, head over to:

January 20 – Scientists Discover New Planet! (Not)

Today’s factismal: If you read about a “new discovery” in the news, odds are it is neither new nor a discovery.

Twitter is all a-twitter today; Mike Brown (the astronomer who found the planet that changed the definition of planet so that Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore) has announced that he believes that there are nine planets in the Solar System. Why has he made this announcement? Does he now agree with the planetologists who thought that Pluto was a planet all along? No such luck. Instead, Brown has found some new data that suggests that there is a large planet hiding 600 times further from the Sun than Earth. This planet would mass about ten times as much as the Earth (making it about half as big as Neptune) and would be responsible for the crazy orbits of some “Kuiper belt” objects. But before you get out your textbooks and start adding new planet names, you need to realize one thing: the “new planet” probably isn’t even there.

Kuiper Belt objects like those that led to the "discovery" of Planet X (Image courtesy NASA)

Kuiper Belt objects like those that led to the “discovery” of Planet X
(Image courtesy NASA)

Say what?
That’s right; the new planet that’s got everyone a-twitter probably doesn’t exist. Right now, our only evidence for this new planet is an oddity in the orbits of a few large chunks of ice and rock out in the remoter regions of the Solar System.The proposed planet hasn’t been seen and has no direct evidence. Based on what is known, claiming that there is another planet in the Solar System is premature at best.

What evidence do they have?
What they do know is that there are six planets (excuse me – “dwarf planets”) out at about 30 AU that have orbits that are clustered together; astronomers estimated that the odds of such a grouping happening by accident is just 0.007%. Put another way, you’d have to have about 300 dwarf planets in the solar system for something like this to happen. (As a point of fact, brown estimates that there are about 400 such objects in our Solar System.) By including a planet that masses about ten times as much as Earth out at a distance of about 600 AU (an astronomical unit is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun; astronomers use AUs like we use miles), Brown’s team was able to make sense of the odd orbits. The dwarf planets weren’t there by chance; they were being forced!

Another Kuiper Belt Object; the image is made from two snapshots taken hours apart. (Image courtesy NASA)

Another Kuiper Belt Object; the image is made from two snapshots taken 13 hours apart.
(Image courtesy NASA)

Why isn’t that proof enough?
If you are a historian of science, then you’ve heard this story before. The reason that we were looking for “Planet X” and found Pluto was because astronomers saw odd perturbations in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus that could “only” be explained by a large planet out about as far as Pluto is in the Solar System. So astronomers spend decades looking for Planet X and declared victory when we found Pluto. Only once we started getting a better look at Pluto, we realized that it was too small and had too elliptical an orbit to be “Planet X”. And when we looked at the odd perturbations in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, we found that they weren’t that odd and didn’t need a “Planet X” to explain them. Thus, any claim that the orbits of six incompletely surveyed objects in the outer Solar System indicate a new planet should be treated with skepticism if not outright hostility.

How can they prove Planet X exists?
If Brown’s team is right, then there will only be one way to prove it: they’ll have to directly image the object. One thing that I know for sure; right now, there are lots of astronomers peering at high-resolution images of the outer Solar System trying to locate something big enough and with the right motion to be Brown’s “Planet X”. If someone finds it, then Brown will be the Le Verrier of the new planet; he’ll get credit for predicting its existence but won’t get to name it.

What if it does exist? Can I see it?
If “Planet X” does exist, odds are that you won’t be able to see it. That’s because the planet will be somewhere between half as large as Neptune and 20% larger (how big it is depends on it’s density), but will be much, much farther out than Neptune is. Given that it takes a good set of binoculars and lots of luck to see Neptune in the night sky, you won’t be able to see “Planet X” without a large telescope.

Density Radius (xNeptune)
0.69 (like Saturn) 1.114
1.64 (like Neptune) 0.835
2.06 (like Pluto) 0.774
5.52 (like Earth) 0.557

Yeah, but I want to hunt planets!
Then you are in luck. You can look through the Kepler data to identify new planets around stars very far away. If you find it, then you get to name it! To learn more, go to Planet Hunters: